Certain Promise, Certain Hope for Uncertain Times

Lectionary 29 (21st Sunday after Pentecost), Year C
2 Timothy 3:14:-4:5
Sunday, October 17, 2010

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

In our second reading today we read excerpts of a letter from Paul
    to the younger Timothy,
    a co-worker with Paul in proclaiming the Gospel and building the church
    in the decades following the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
It was a scary time for the early church.
We can easily romanticize the early church,
    view it as some sort of frontier religion with Paul establishing Christian outposts
    in a pagan world, outposts that would later thrive as centers of a vital, new religion.
But the reality was much more grim.

Christians were ostracized, persecuted and even executed because of their beliefs.
Attacked from the outside, they were also terribly divided on the inside.
There were quarrels about authority and legitimacy within the Christian community.
Accusations of false teachings and false teachers were hurled with reckless abandon.
There was a significant division regarding the church’s relationship
    with the faith and practice of the Jews,
    with some Christians groups go so far as to reject the Old Testament altogether.
Christians, especially Greek converts,
    struggled with what of their culture they should accept and what they should reject.
We, today, have two thousand years of Christian witness and theology on which to lean
    for guidance in addressing the challenging issues of our day,
    and we have a culture that largely accepts our religion.
They in the early church had a Messiah who was hung on a cross just decades earlier,
    and fellow believers who were thrown to the lions.
Those were scary times for the church.
Reading those letters of the early church that are found in our Bible,
    it’s a wonder how they even survived.
Clearly, the Spirit of God was upon them.
But even with that Spirit, those were scary times for the church.

These are not scary, but certainly uncertain times, for the church in North America.
Christians aren’t being fed to lions, for example.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, we can see a host of other challenges coming our way.
Attendance is stagnant or declining.
    Rates of participation are declining.
And despite our best efforts,
    the finances of most congregations and denominations are unsteady.
Here at Resurrection, we’re doing a good job at managing our budget,
    but even as we spend far less than budget,
    we still manage to spend more than we’re bringing in.
And we have more empty seats than we do filled seats.
Why is it?
Well, for one, it is not a liberal/conservative thing,
    as some have suggested that supposedly “liberal,” 20th century theology
    has weakened the church and its appeal to the people.
No, for even the very conservative Christian traditions in our society,
    be they Missouri Synod Lutherans,
    Evangelical Christians, Southern Baptists or Roman Catholics,
    even they are seeing moderate to significant signs of decline.
Yes, the church as a whole is changing.
Society no longer expects church attendance as a constituent element of citizenship.
The church is no longer the cornerstone of society that it once was.
Blue laws no longer protect Sunday for the churches,
    and school and community groups no longer reserve Sunday morning
    and Wednesday evening for church activities.
The church is on its own more than it has been in a long, long time.
This shift in society, I believe, is actually very good for the health of the church,
    for it reduces the church’s dependence on secular society and government
    to carry out its sacred mission.
But it is a shift, a serous shift, that has been taking place in our society and culture
    for the past 50/60 years, and the church is only just now waking up to it.
For centuries the church, and for decades this congregation,
    has benefited from a special relationship with society.
    And that relationship is changing.
Those changes will surely impact how the whole church,
    and how we here at Resurrection,
    carry out ministry in the coming generations.

Yes, this is an uncertain time for the church.
Not only is our relationship with society changing,
    but the way that people interact with each other and with institutions is changing.
People spend more time online than they do under one roof,
    meaning bricks and mortar centers of ministry are likely to be of less significance
    in the future than they are now.
Bricks and mortar are good and wonderful things, don’t get me wrong.
It is because of these blessed walls that we are able to gather together,
    in one grand, set-apart space,
    to worship our God in faith and truth,
    and to gather around God’s Word for study and meditation,
    to learn and to grow and be sent to serve.
It is because of these blessed walls, paid for by the blood, sweat and tears
    of some of you in these pews, by some of your parents,
    and by some of the blessed saints
        whose earthly remains now rest in our memorial garden,
It is within the embrace of these blessed walls
    that we gather as God’s people to do the things that God has called us to do,
    to worship, learn, and serve.
And for these walls, and for those who built these walls, we give thanks to God.

But … but at the end of the day, the church is not about bricks and mortar,
    and perhaps this coming generation understands that better
    than some of us who were raised in the church do.
Bricks and mortar, indeed, as blessed as they can be, also come at a cost.
    Rainwater seeps into the basement,
    cold air sneaks in during the winter,
    and cool air conditioned air sneaks out during the summer.
Pastors salaries and benefits, budget for programs, utility bills to keep the lights on.
The ministry is expensive!
And keeping it going over the long haul,
    considering the likely convergence of several trends,
    is going to be tough, dear friends.  I cannot lie.
But the short term is a different situation.
The long term challenges, though begun, are not fully upon us yet,
    and for this next year and the next several years,
    we are fully able to carry out this ministry faithfully
        with the support it requires.
Our stewardship appeal and pledge drive
    invites you to consider your own gifts and financial commitment to this church,
    commitments that we are more than capable of making to ensure that this ministry
        thrives in the coming year.
And indeed … the better we support the ministry now,
    the more we invest our time, money, and energy into the church now,
    the better prepared we will be to face and, indeed, welcome
    the challenges that our church will inevitably face in ten, twenty, fifty years.
 The church, as we know it – and that caveat is important here –
    the church as we know it is going to face challenges and changes
    into the mid- and long-term future.
The Word of God will surely survive and prevail,
    and the church will not die.
What will the church look like when I’m ready to retire, or to be laid in the ground,
    or when my children have children?
Now is the t
ime that we need to start asking those questions.
Now is the time to make the commitment to grow this church and its capacity
    to wrestle with the significant changes that are coming in our society.
Now is the time to gather and pray and plan in anticipation of what is coming next.

Paul wrote to Timothy during a time of great anxiety for the early church.
Perhaps we can hear Paul writing to us, too,
    offering words of faith and assurance and hope and promise
    in the midst of our uncertainty.
“Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed,” Paul writes.
“From childhood you have known the sacred writings
    that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.”
Do you hear these words of promise,
    reminding Timothy and us of what we already know,
    of what we have received in faith from our Sunday School teachers,
        pastors, and dear saints who came before us?
Paul goes on: “All scripture is inspired by God,
    it is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction,
        and for training in righteousness,
    so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient,
        equipped for every good work.”
Lean on what you’ve learned in the past, Paul says,
    on what you’ve believed, what you’ve received in the scriptures,
    because what you’ve learned, what you’ve believed,
    what you’ve received in the scriptures is good and holy and certain,
        a blessed comfort in an uncertain time.
These are blessings to carry you into a new day.
But that’s not all.
Paul also speaks of a promise, a promise about
    the presence of God and of Christ Jesus,
    who will appear again to judge the living and the dead,
    and who will inaugurate his kingdom.
That is, Paul implores Timothy not only to look to the past as strength for the present,
    but he bids Timothy to look also to the future promised by our Lord,
    a promise of his immanent return to judge the living and the dead,
    to set the world to rights, to end the current suffering
        and establish a new kingdom, a new world, a new creation.
It is with this twofold reminder of God’s past blessings and his future promises,
    that Paul implores his younger co-worker in the Gospel to continue his good work,
    a good and holy and just work that must be carried out
        in this interim time between two kingdoms, two reigns, two worlds.

Like Timothy’s church,
    we are living in an interim time,
    in between our Lord’s first appearance on this earth and his promised return;
    in between the start of Christ’s work of renewal and re-creation,
        and his promised completion of that work in his coming again.
But we are also living in between two less ultimate, but still terribly significant,
    eras in the life of our church and society –
between the era of the church as an established cornerstone of society,
    benefiting from all the trappings and privileges
    incumbent with such a position,
and an emerging era of church as a disestablished spiritual community,
    perhaps with fewer bricks and less mortar,
    and with even fewer accommodations granted to it by society and state,
    but with a passionate commitment to what we have been given
        by the saints who came before us,
    and confident hope in what our Lord promises in the blessed future.

Let us give thanks for what our Lord has done in this place,
    the good and holy work performed by the saints
    who sat in these pews over the past 70 years and built these walls.
May we look with hope to what our Lord promises yet to do,
    and give witness to that perfect, coming Kingdom of God
    by working today to fashion our world
        according to the design and justice of God’s Kingdom.
And may we respond in faith now, delving into the God-breathed words of scripture,
    gathering together in worship and prayer,
    giving of our time, talents, and treasures, to maintain this ministry so that
    more might come to know God and be comforted by his wonderful promises,
        and that, moving into the future,
        the church might be ready to greet the next chapter in its history,
        and welcome the coming Kingdom of God,
        equipped with faith for every good work.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
Paul wrote these words to Timothy a long time ago,
    but I think they also say something to us today.
“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus,
    who is to judge the living and the dead,
        and in view of his appearing and his kingdom,
        I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message;
        be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable,
        and trust in the promises of our Lord Jesus Christ,”
    the Holy One of God who is, and who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

Published by C. Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

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